I recently attended an art opening for a terrific painter, a friend and colleague I have known close to a decade. The exhibit was in a Baltimore warehouse gallery in a not-completely-safe part of town and you had to climb several sets of dark and smelly stairs, full of spiders and cigarette butts, to get there. Once you entered the gallery, the exhibit was gorgeous. The space was professionally curated and well-lit and the artist’s new work was outstanding, but you would never have known this gallery existed unless you had visited before or came with a friend.
As I photographed some of the artwork and the surging crowds, I noticed something: everyone at the opening was wearing black or gray. There was barely a smack of beige or tan. Then, I watched as a blonde, middle-aged couple, obviously non-artists, entered the space. How could I tell? She was wearing a brightly colored floral dress and heels and he wore a melon colored polo shirt with the collar turned up. Both had haircuts that looked like they were professionally done, unlike anyone else at the reception.
The couple looked around nervously and then picked up a price list. I watched as they scanned the paper and shielded themselves from the rest of the room, where no one acknowledged them. It was obvious that their presence wasn’t welcome at the event. In an attempt to save face, they furtively looked around at a few pieces of art in the room and then, within a few minutes, were gone. At which point the crowd became a homogenous mix of black and gray clothing, messy hair, and zero art sales.
Why am I telling this story? Mainly because I am sick and tired of hearing Baltimore artists whine about the absence of an art market. I am tired of hearing that Baltimore artists complain that local collectors purchase work in New York and Miami, that opportunities for local sales are few and far between. We live in the richest state in the country. Money is not the problem.
While I will admit there is no actual connection between preppies at art openings and sales, there IS an obvious connection between art shows attended exclusively by artists and NO sales. Although I am a proponent of artists buying local, affordable works, we all know this is not going to keep galleries afloat or grow art careers. The most ambitious works of art are beyond the price range of other artists, and this is how it should be.
Baltimore’s plethora of DIY warehouse spaces are vital and brilliant. We are lucky to have them. They offer large and excellent gallery spaces to artists for high-caliber exhibits, but they are not reaching the art market. They are not reaching any market. If artists and galleries are to survive, sustain, and grow, we need to do a much better job at reaching out to those who can actually afford to buy our products.
As artists, we tend to focus on other artists, and not those who might want to own our work. Baltimore’s art community is an incredibly warm, supportive, and almost familial group, but, as a gallerist friend from out of town noted that night, with distain, “It’s just artists at these shows. Who buys anything?” It was an obnoxious statement, and he earned a punch in the arm from me, but it made me consider the event from the perspective of someone who regularly sends checks to artists. What is this point?
Maybe not all of us make work intended to sell, and that’s okay. Regardless, we can all do a better job as ambassadors for our cause, which is generating support and enthusiasm for the arts within the general public. In an age when even art language has evolved to be exclusive and make people feel stupid, artists need to be conscious of the message we are sending to those outside of our community because we won’t survive without them.
Think of it this way: Do we want people to care about what we do? Yes. Do we believe that the general population can benefit from experiencing our work? Yes. Do we want the regular people without degrees in critical theory to support arts funding? Yes. Currently what we are communicating is NO, because we are more interested in our own comfort and individual ambition than reaching out.
If you want art sales to improve, even a little bit in this town, the next time you go to an art opening, scan the crowd for new faces. See if there’s anyone at the event you don’t already know. Take a minute to say hello and make them feel welcome. It’s terrifying to attend a party where everyone knows everyone and you know no one, so put yourself in their (possibly expensive) shoes. Does this make you feel like an Evangelist? I’m sorry, but this is the field you have chosen for yourself. You have amazing ideas, but you make a product that can’t be eaten, worn, or lived in. As a community, we will all benefit from a dose of friendly public relations.
Art openings are social events. They are parties, but there’s a reason I rarely drink the free booze at them. It’s because I’m working. Whether it’s my show or someone else’s, an art reception is a professional opportunity to make new connections and, hopefully, garner support for my cause, which is all you people reading.
Let’s make our community a little bit bigger and see what happens! Here’s a proposal: the next time you hear about an interesting art exhibit, invite a few non-artists to attend, especially those who might consider purchasing works of art. And, when you see an individual in a peach polo shirt at an opening looking uncomfortable, don’t do what everyone else does and hide – start a conversation.
You never know what you might learn from someone from the other side of the trenches. At very least, the conversation is an opportunity for you to explain how great the exhibition is and convert this Philistine to our cause.
Disclaimer Added 2/5/14: This article was never intended as a critique of individuals or gallerists or even to emphasize a certain event. It was written from a subjective viewpoint, based on what I saw, photographed, and remembered, but the specific event described was used to make a larger point. My goal in writing this was to address a collective mindset that can be short-sighted and to encourage artists to consider the larger economic ecosystem here in Baltimore. I firmly believe if we are going to grow as a community, we need to look outside our own cultural boundaries and include others.
* Author Cara Ober is the Founding Editor at Bmoreart and teaches Professional Development Classes at MICA.